St. Cyril of Alexandria (5th century) makes a peculiar comment regarding those who hear these words, and will “leap like a deer”. He says “those who formerly did not keep to the straight and narrow, but had a limited mentality, will bound like deer, meaning that they will be agile and nimble (in a spiritual sense, that is), and furthermore become snake killers, and fluent speakers. What does he mean by the term “snake killers”? In the ancient world, deer were known for two peculiar things. Firstly, it was believed that they ate snakes. And partially because of this diet, they were also known for having an insatiable thirst for springs of water. Just one example of this from antiquity is seen in another of St. Cyril’s comments on Isaiah, where he likens the disciples of God to deer saying “Now they are very rightly compared to deer, an animal that kills snakes and is habitually fond of springs of water; this is the way with everyone devoted to God and appropriately equipped to do away with the spiritual dragon, by overthrowing his eminence, and rendering powerless and ineffectual the venom of his innate malice (pg. 269 vol. 2).”
For this reason, it is fascinating to find that there are numerous ancient baptismal fonts from the early centuries of the Church still in existence that contain images of deer with snakes in their mouths.
Many of you, who have read the Harry Potter books, will recall what animal Harry shows forth in his Patronus, an image which has the power to disperse the evil demon-like creatures, the Dementors. As was the case with his father before him, his Patronus figure is a stag, a male deer. The stag was used as a symbol for Christ in much of ancient and medieval literature. If you have read the seventh book of the Harry Potter series, perhaps you will recall how when all hope and direction seems lost, Harry is led one night by a doe, a female deer, to a frozen pond. In the bottom of the pond, in the moonlight that is shining through the ice, Harry can just make out the image of a silver cross. In homage to C. S. Lewis, and the baptism of Eustace Scrubb by Aslan, in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Rowling has Harry break through the ice, and descend into the freezing water to seek the cross (which is actually a very special sword, which is used by someone else later in the book to cut off the head of a very large snake!). Harry does battle in the waters with an evil burden that he carries, and dies a figurative death. He is pulled from the waters by a friend he thought he’d lost, and upon his emergence from the water, everything has suddenly changed, and he now has direction. His purification through each of the seven books leads him to this moment, where he now knows that he can go forth and defeat the evil Lord Voldemort, who is more snake than man.
Read these books. They're great reads, but in doing so, you will find a shared text, something in common with the people in your pews and in the houses next door. This gives access to all who read them and allows you to open their world to that greater text: the Word that became flesh to save us from the serpent.